Care Ethics


Care ethicists do ethical theory with special attention to human connection and relationships of care. These relationships have ethical dimensions that other ethical traditions tend not to address, are poorly placed to speak to, or both. Care ethics is, thus, (at least) an important supplement to traditional ethical theories, offering us tools to analyze the ethical dimensions of particular kinds of caring relationships and practices. A focus on human relatedness and caring can also be a starting point for the development of comprehensive care ethical theories comparable in scope to such traditional alternatives as consequentialism, deontology, or virtue theory.

One important question the foregoing raises is: Why have caring relationships been ignored by traditional ethical theories? There are at least two (complimentary) kinds of answers that care ethicists give to this question.

One explanation is that other theories provide little by way of theoretical resources that could address the ethical dimensions of relationships of care. The major ethical theories in the Western canon tend to treat moral exchanges as exchanges between free and autonomous individuals. The ethical concepts and principles generated by these theories thus are rooted in assumptions about human relationships that don’t hold in relationships of care. Relationships between caregivers and their dependents aren’t always equal or voluntary in any obvious sense, and they may involve bonds of affection and trust.

Another explanation is that most Western ethical theories privilege a justice-centered moral orientation. A moral orientation is a way of organizing information about morally relevant situations around a scheme of concepts, values, and focal points. A justice orientation is a moral orientation that privileges rights, obligations, universal principles, and equality. By contrast, a care orientation favors relationships, needs, particularity, and care.

Pioneer care ethicist and moral psychologist Carol Gilligan argued that each moral orientation produces a different gestalt: a holistic way of seeing ethically significant situations and the people involved. At bottom, each involves a different way of imagining human relations, and each imbues the situation with significance according to a divergent pattern. In invoking gestalts, Gilligan suggests that moral reasoners are capable of switching between these orientations, but cannot see a situation according to each simultaneously, just as one cannot a duck/rabbit drawing as both a duck and a rabbit simultaneously. This would explain why care ethicists’ central concerns have been obscured in the development of ethical theories which privilege a justice perspective.

What is care?

For many care ethicists, the word ‘care’ generally denotes a set of practices aimed at fulfilling needs. But the word ‘care’ can also be used in the English language to indicate a sentiment, a personal virtue, or a relational value. It’s this multiplicity of meanings that has, in part, supported the extension of the umbrella term “care ethics” to a variety of theories with differing conceptions of care as the field has developed.

How did care ethics develop?

Some of the influential early pioneers of care ethics were Sara Ruddick, Carol Gilligan, and Nel Noddings.

Carol Gilligan

In In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (1982), Carol Gilligan introduced the idea that there is a “different voice” in ethics that had previously been underappreciated in developmental psychology. Her research criticized Lawrence Kohlberg and other psychologists who worked on moral development focusing on males. The scales Kohlberg and others were using to test moral development, when applied to females, suggested that a large percentage of females never reached moral maturity. Gilligan argued that her research on moral development demonstrated that there two distinct moral voices and two distinct ways of demonstrating moral maturity. In a later paper, "Moral Orientation and Moral Development," she posited that each voice is associated with a justice-dominant or care-dominant moral orientation. Most people are capable of switching between these orientations quite fluidly, but tend to default to one or the other.

Nel Noddings

In Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (1984), Nel Noddings developed a theory that embodied what Gilligan had identified as the voice of the care-oriented moral thinker. Noddings’ theory gave moral motivation and moral obligation a foundation of natural caring. Natural caring generates a spontaneous sense of obligation (an “I must”) in response to needs that arise in our immediate relationships. When natural caring doesn’t arise in response to another, our past experiences of caring provide us with the basis of an ideal to aim for: ethical caring. We construct this ideal from our own stock of experiences of successful care: care that is both offered and received as caring. Our obligation to aim for ethical caring stems from the value we place on relatedness. Acting upon this ideal sometimes, though not always, establishes (or re-establishes) natural caring.

Notably, our moral obligation to care is, on Noddings’ view, something that can’t be captured in a set of universal rules or principles. What constitutes successful caring is highly specific to the particular people and situation.

Sara Ruddick

In Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (1989), Sarah Ruddick argued that mothering practices facilitate the development of “maternal thinking,” a set of cognitive skills and attitudes associated with the aims of one who devotes a significant amount of time and effort to caring for children. The practice of mothering has a number of aims, but chief among these are preservation, growth, and training for social acceptability. These aims can be carried out well or poorly, and they sometimes conflict with one another. Over time, thinking about these aims helps mothers develop the ability judge what counts as successful care while negotiating between these competing aims.

Ruddick also devoted a significant portion of the book to arguing for the view that the standpoint of the mother brings the need for a politics of peace into focus.

Each of these early contributions to care ethics focused primarily (though not exclusively) on care as a morality suitable to and informed by a focus on particular caring relationships. Later care ethicists developed in greater detail the care perspective’s answers to ethical questions about global social and political issues.

Some contemporary care ethicists have retained elements of these influential early versions, such as Noddings’ commitment to moral particularism—the view that universal principles couldn’t guide or determine what constitutes moral behavior in real, complex moral situations. However, alternative versions with a variety of moral foundations (virtue ethics, natural law, sentimentalist] have also been developed.

Is care ethics feminine? Is it feminist?

Especially in the beginning, care ethicists were interested in constructing theories that reflect women’s moral thinking, and particularly mothers’. In this sense, it is a *feminine* ethics. Doing feminine ethics could be construed as *feminist* in the following sense: valuing women’s experiences is a feminist aim. Women’s approaches to moral reasoning have been excluded from mainstream philosophical conversations about ethics. Care ethics aims to account for women’s experiences and to bring the insights we can gain from such an exercise into the mainstream conversation.

Feminists’ responses to care ethics have, however, been wary. One objection is that care ethicists are providing justifications for women’s oppression. If women are naturally good at caring, perhaps a social arrangement that encourages women to occupy care-giving roles should be preferred.

Contrary to such objections, care ethicists are not generally committed to gender essentialism. In focusing on women and mothers, care ethicists generally acknowledge that the social arrangement in which women are called upon to do the bulk of the care-giving labor is a contingent one. In any case, caring is a part of the human experience. Everyone has a number of dependency relationships over the course of a lifetime, and many people engage in care-giving practices, gender notwithstanding. Everyone has experiences of such relationships to draw from in developing an understanding of the values and aims that are distinctive of care ethics.

Is care ethics uniquely Western?

Care ethics, so-named, may have originated in the late 20th century in Western academies, but scholars have made some fruitful comparisons between care ethics and non-Western philosophies including Confucianism, Buddhism, Indian philosophy, and African ethics. These may be of special interest to supporters of The Deviant Philosopher’s mission because they provide opportunities for dialogue across traditions.
(More to come)

Key Terms

Relationships of dependence/care: In a caring relationships, there are givers and receivers of care. Caregivers undertake to meet the needs of dependents. These positions (care-giver and dependent) need not be fixed. They can be traded and alternated between relationship partners.

Interdependence: Through our particular relationships of dependence/care, we are indirectly connected to others who have relationships of dependency/care with the same people. These connections make us interdependent.

Care: (Usually) a practice or activity aimed at meeting the needs of a dependent. (See What is Care? above)

Moral orientation: A way of organizing a moral perspective with key concepts and concerns, creating a gestalt view of moral situations. Care ethicists often view care and justice as different moral orientations.

Suggested Readings

Classic books (early care ethics)

  • Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982)
  • Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984)
  • Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989)


  • Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, edited by Virginia Held (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995)

Edited Volumes

  • Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy, edited by Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers, and Susan Dodds (New York, NY: Oxford, 2014)
  • Socializing Care: Feminist Perspectives on Public Issues, edited by Maurice Hammington and Dorothy C. Miller (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006)
  • The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Ellen K. Feder (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)
  • An Ethic of Care: Feminist and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Mary Jeanne Larrabee (New York, NY: Routledge, 1993)
  • Explorations in Feminist Ethics: Theory and Practice, edited by Eve Browning Cole and Susan Coultrap-McQuin (Bloomington , IN: Indiana University Press, 1992)
  • Women and Moral Theory, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Diana T. Meyers (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987)


Encyclopedia entries

  • Maurine Sander-Staud, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Care Ethics”
  • Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams, Stanford Encycolpedia of Philosophy, “Feminist Ethics”
    • Situates care ethics in the history of woman-focused ethical theory.
    • Discusses the senses in which care ethics is feminine and/or feminist ethics.
    • Explains the developments in care ethics aimed at generating answers to ethical questions about global issues.